Monday, July 1, 2013

Accidentally In Love... with Northern Ireland

So, in looking back over my blog, I’ve realized that I haven’t really given a good overall picture of what my YAV experience has been like. I haven’t even given a ton of specifics on the people I've come to love and the things I do day-to-day.

So, here’s a birds-eye view of the past 10 months: love and growth.

I’ve grown as a person in ways that I can feel but can’t quite put my finger on. My family and friends back home will probably be the ones who point out the changes in me. This year has been challenging and rewarding, frustrating and joyful, and all of it has been a blessing and a learning experience.
But it’s not over yet! I’ve still got a month, and I’ll continue to work and build relationships with my community in the time I have left -- specifically at The Link during drop-in sessions and special summer programs, at Regent Street Presbyterian during Sunday mornings and Vacation Bible School (aka Holiday Bible Club), and with my fellow Belfast YAVs!

People-that-I-love #1: Youth and staff at The Link!

Christmas Party!
Victory smiles and tongues after walking the Ards Half Marathon
At the beginning of the year, I was more nervous about my role in The Link than anything else that lay ahead of me, and it has turned out to be one of my richest and most-loved experiences. At times, I’ve been so annoyed at the guys in drop-in that I’ve wanted to rage and throw some chairs across the room, and at others I’ve wanted to hug them and laugh at every ridiculous thing they say. But mostly, I’ve cherished every single conversation with the boys in drop-in and the girls in the Young Women’s group, because with each one, we’ve shared a bit of ourselves with each other. All those little snippets of dialogue – jokes and silliness to political and cultural analysis – all of it built upon itself to establish some common ground. We surprise ourselves with what we have in common, even if we’re coming at life from a completely different perspective, upbringing, or culture. I know I’ve learned a lot from these young people because of those differences, and not in spite of them.

People-that-I-love #2: Young and old and in-between at Regent Street Presbyterian!

Canoeing in Enniskillen

Putt Putt Golfing in the rain -- only in Northern Ireland!

They are an incredibly warm and welcoming congregation, and I’ve had BUCKETS O’ FUN with the Youth Fellowship this year.  Some of these teenagers are the most lovable and ridiculous human beings I’ve had the privilege of ever bonding with. I wish everyone in the world could meet them and come to love them the way I do.  

Jayne and I with our new accessories!

 Recently, myself and another young woman in the church, Jayne, began leading a Youth Alpha course on Sunday mornings, and it has been a wonderful opportunity for us to look at the heart of Christianity. It also provides an opportunity for young people to ask questions about faith and life. Just as their minds, bodies, and personalities are growing in new and weird ways, teenagers are growing in their understanding of the universe and their role within it. I love this age group; they always surprise me in their wisdom and creativity as they are learning to think for themselves. Some of the most profound things I’ve heard this year have come from the mouths of "immature" teens.


People-that-I-love #3: BELFAST YAVs!!!

Aww, aren't we precious?

Uhh... actually, this is way more accurate.

Seriously, it's going to break my heart when it comes time to say goodbye, and I thank God for the blessing of new friends who have been a constant support and comfort for me this year. And, even though it's painful, I thank God for the experience of missing others, because it means I have loved deeply.

"So now I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples." John 13:34-35

Monday, April 29, 2013

Springtime/Laughing in the Face of Evil

Well, friends, I never thought it would happen. But, after months of cold and snow and waiting under blankets until the heater kicks in, I think it’s safe to say that Spring is finally gracing Northern Ireland with her presence. 
Sometimes she decides to hide for a few days, but lately it seems like we’re getting fewer days like this...

and more like this...!


And we’re starting to experience that strange, strange phenomenon that I associate with Alaska and Iceland and living too close to the Arctic Circle – longer days. Sometimes the gloom of night doesn’t fully settle on Northern Ireland until 9 pm! It’s really throwing off my biological clock. 7 pm usually rolls around and if I’m not paying attention to the clock, my brain translates the amount of light coming in through the window as “4:30 pm”. It’s weird, guys. But it’s a pretty cool experience, and it’s kinda fun! Apparently in the summertime, it won’t get dark until 11 pm!! What a weird world.

Ok, on to the good stuff! 
I want to tell you a story about how Jesus calls us to laugh in the face of evil. A couple of weeks ago, the YAVs had a workshop/discussion with Beth Corrie, a professor at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, GA. She’s been on leave in Northern Ireland, and agreed to talk with us about the definitions of violence and nonviolence, and how that knowledge can be applied to our work contexts as well as to Christian theology. She asked us to read part of Walter Wink’s Jesus and Nonviolence, a brilliant and insightful look at the example Jesus sets for nonviolence.
Definitely one of my favorite conversations we’ve had since being in Belfast.
This explanation of the powwow might seem a bit like school, but I’m a BIG OL’ NERD, and really wanted to share these insights with you!
Pretty much everyone knows what violence is, and could define it if asked to. In our discussion, we came up with these charts, giving examples of violence in its many manifestations. 

But is nonviolence synonymous with passivity? Is it weakness? Is it the absence of action? NO! It is the opposite of these things!
Our animal instincts give us two options for dealing with assault and confrontation: Fight or Flight. Walter Wink explains that Jesus demonstrates a THIRD WAY for us, a sort of intelligent evolution above our animal instincts, in dealing with an oppressive force.
Nonviolence is a learned, creative response that breaks the spiral of overt or covert violence. The best examples of nonviolent action often use humor, creativity, and cultural relevance to up-end the present power structure. Walter Wink calls it “aikido-like”, which is a brilliant comparison. In aikido, martial artists use the momentum from their opponent’s moves against them – the attacker’s own throws and punches become their downfall. When used effectively, nonviolence works in the same way, making the oppressor look foolish or powerless in their attempt to assert their own strength.

“The Powers That Be literally stand on their dignity. Nothing depotentiates them faster than deft lampooning. By refusing to be awed by their power, the powerless are emboldened to seize the initiative, even where structural change is not possible.” 
-- Walter Wink

            One of my favorite examples that Walter Wink uses is Jesus’ story about the man who is so poor he only has his outer garment as collateral for a loan. (Matthew 5:40) When the “Powers That Be” (the Roman empire) sue him for his outer garment because their exploitative system has left him unable to pay back his debt, Jesus suggests that he offer his inner garment as well… AKA his underwear. Why is Jesus telling his poor audience to strut around in their birthday suits? Because “nakedness was taboo in Judaism, and shame fell not on the naked party, but on the person viewing or causing one’s nakedness (Gen. 9:20-27).”  In this case, the Roman creditor, the one holding your outer garment and your underwear, is left standing embarrassed, shamed, and the cruelty of the system he represents is as exposed as your bare bum in the afternoon sun outside the courthouse!
“Here is a poor man who will no longer be treated as a sponge to be squeezed dry by the rich. He accepts the laws as they stand, pushes them to the point of absurdity, and reveals them for what they really are.”                
-- Walter Wink

Can you imagine how Jesus’ audience must have laughed at the thought?
Sometimes knowing the cultural/historical context for Jesus’ teaching makes all the difference, and the other examples Jesus gives in Mathew 5:38-41 are just as subversive!

White Flour, a children’s book written recently by David LaMotte, wonderfully illustrates Jesus’ advocacy of clowning in the face of hatred. Below you’ll find a video reading of the book, inspired by events that happened on May 26, 2007 when a KKK march came through Knoxville, Tennessee.
(Shout-out to Meg Pabst who introduced me to this book! Holla!)

Yet you have forgotten the Lord, your Creator, the one who stretched out the sky like a canopy and laid the foundations of the earth. Will you remain in constant dread of human oppressors? Will you continue to fear the anger of your enemies? Where is their fury and anger now? It is gone!
Isaiah 51:13

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

6 months down, check. Giant mural, check.

It’s been just over 6 months since I left Florida to be a Young Adult Volunteer in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and I am now at the halfway mark.  I feel like I am at the peak of a tall hill, and I have the advantage of seeing where I’ve come from, and how far I have to go.  The first few months of climbing have been filled with challenges, self-discoveries, feeling-low funks, top-of-the-world highs, and exciting new experiences.

I’ve learned so much – more than I thought possible – in the short amount of time that I’ve been here. Now that I’ve lived in another culture, I’ve grown to see my own country in a new light, recognizing America’s own triumphs and flaws. I feel more like a global citizen.

One of my main responsibilities and joys these past few months has been helping to facilitate a mural project for the walls of The Link’s youth drop-in room. We rounded up 8 young people who would regularly attend the drop-in, and gave them the reins in planning their mural! The only stipulation was that it had to be about their community… and potentially how they could be a catalyst for positive changes within their community.

We received a grant in order to hire a local artist group who specializes in painting murals. They listened to the 8 young people explain what they imagined their mural to be about, and came back to us with a design for everyone to approve. Everyone was so enthusiastic and was itching to get a spray can in their hands!


The artists laid in the basic outline of the design, and they let the youth fill in the color!

Everyone had a blast!

Some of them were especially eager to document the entire process.

Within 2 days, we had painted and completed our mural. It was such a positive experience for all involved, and it made a real difference in the way the room felt – less clinical and much more cheerful! And even beyond that, the message within the mural has really seemed to resonate with the participants: everyone has the ability to make a difference in the world around them!

 At the end of February, we had a Presentation/Unveiling/Celebration of the mural, and recognized the 8 young people who made the mural possible. There were families, friends, Link Staff, Volunteers, and community members invited to our fancy-schmancy shin-dig, and everyone was so impressed and proud of our youth!

In the image to the left, you can see the red curtain hiding the mural until the unveiling, and everyone watching a video of the process and interviews that were pieced together by myself! Our camera men were so enthusiastic that there was plenty of video footage to choose from. If you'd like to see what the young people had to say about their project, and some first impressions from other members of the drop-in, definitely check out the video below!


Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Dance

Happy New Year! Please allow me to share a small, special anecdote from my time in Barcelona with my lovely friend and fellow YAV, Anna.

I'll basically be copying these words from my journal, with a few embellishments.

December 31st, 2012. New Year's Eve Day.

Just had the perfect afternoon in Barcelona with Anna. I slept in, catching up on all the missed rest that comes with a crazy Christmas season, and then we picked up a feast at the market across the street from the hostel: mystery egg(?) sandwich, "AFRICA" (mystery mix of spicy corn nuts & stuff), banana, and a Dairy Milk OREO chocolate bar (aka HEAVEN).
We took a leisurely stroll around the city and all of a sudden Sagrada Familia appeared before me! As we approached the cathedral, comfortable and munching and talking beneath the beauty and quirkiness of the ever-under-construction wonder before us, we noticed a group of people gathered off to our left. 

A ring of about 20 people were doing a simple dance, clapping and stepping in a rhythm around 3 guitarists in the center of the ring. We couldn't understand the language they were singing in, but it looked like fun and a lot of people were standing around watching and recording the spectacle on their camera phones. Anna and I hung back for a while, but it was obvious we secretly wanted to join in. We couldn't resist! So we jumped into the circle and clapped and tried to get our feet to match their feet. Even though we couldn't sing along, neither Anna nor I stopped smiling the entire time.

And then a beautiful girl with a tambourine next to me asked,  
"¿Cómo se llama?" 
To which I eloquently replied, 
(trying to remember my non-existent Spanish... I think that means "What is your name?") 
"Uh, Grace?"
 At which point the tambourine girl figured out that I probably didn't speak Spanish.
"Do you speak English?"
(Gee, how could you tell? )
We danced for a while and then we struck up a broken conversation again, in which I told her that Anna and I were wondering what "this" (with a gesture encompassing the dancers, the musicians, and the crowd of spectators) was all about.
She paused, and in her limited English she explained in the best way she could:

"Do you believe in God?" 

I think my heart skipped a beat.
I nod, "Yeah..."
And we continue to dance. That was the only explanation that was needed.

In that moment, I was struck with this EPIPHANY:
Christian life, Christian community, is like this big dance, this big messy celebration. People on the outside kind of wonder what it's all about, and maybe don't understand the language or the steps, but recognize the joy on the faces of the dancers and sometimes they can't help but jump into the dance.
Anna's addition to the metaphor: When new dancers jump in, they don't know the steps so they need others to teach them, and they in turn teach new dancers when they jump in. Everyone has a role in the circle.

Do you believe in God?

That is why we dance. 

Monday, November 26, 2012

Last 2012 post: Cartoon Edition

It's been so long since I've updated my blog and it was almost overwhelming thinking about everything that's happened since the last post! So, I drew some silly pictures to help me stay on track with everything I need to tell you, my beloved reader, about.
First, in mid-October, I took a canoe trip with the Youth Fellowship at our church to a bothy (cabin) in the middle of a lake in Enniskillen.
 It was really cold, really rustic, and a really great way to bond with the leaders and kids!

Then, a few weeks later, the Belfast YAVs took their first group retreat to the MOURNE MOUNTAINS!
The misty silhouette of these mountains in the distance is rumored to be C.S. Lewis' inspiration for the fantastical world of Narnia. No Big Deal. We did a little hiking, a few side trips, and a lot of laughing and bonding.

One of my favorite parts of the retreat was our trip to a local monastery. We were able to have a wonderful conversation with Brother Terry, who had some wise and insightful things to say about living in community -- which was especially relevant for our group. And something about being in that beautiful setting, with these men who left everything behind in order to give their lives to Christ, to commit themselves to the ministry of prayer, and to BE unity... totally wrecked me... in a good way.  It made me rethink my casual and lazy prayer-life and inspired me to see everyone as Christ -- even (and especially) when it's difficult because they are dirty, rude, foreign, deformed, or disagreeable.  As Brother Terry said: "Christ rarely comes to us in ways that we expect or would like."
"Every monk, every Christian, every human being must be about prayer, work, and community life. These are the yearnings that were placed in us at creation."
We were then able to attend a worship service at the monastery, and the singing, chanting, and prayers were so beautiful! I felt so blessed and the service felt so ancient and deep and spiritual that I was moved to tears.

And then I voted in my first Presidential election via Absentee Ballot! Very exciting! It was interesting having conversations with locals about the election and predicting what the outcome would be. It was cool getting a global perspective instead of being bombarded with American ads leading up to November 6th. I also discovered that voting brings out the Patriot in me! :)

And most importantly, I recently had the enormous privilege to piece together a video of interviews from the boys at The Link drop-in center, talking about a trip to Dublin that they took earlier in the year. I've only been here about 3 months, but I was absolutely "chuffed" hearing such tolerant attitudes and poignantly simple wisdom as they reflected back on everything they learned from their experience. We could all learn a thing or two from these boys. I highly recommend watching the video below!

The Link showed this video at an Awards Night for clients and members, celebrating all that they had accomplished this year. We were so proud of everyone there, and have great hope for what they are capable of accomplishing in the future!

Thanksgiving has passed (with Belfast friends instead of family) and preparations for Christmas are in full swing! I probably won't post again until after the holidays are over, because I've got some big plans that will keep me busy into January! I'll be turning 22 in a foreign country, my Dad is coming to visit the week after Christmas, and then another volunteer and I are off to Barcelona for New Years!
See you in 2013! That is, if the Mayan's got it wrong and the world doesn't end before then... I like to think that we'll probably be okay :)

Monday, October 8, 2012

Happy Fall! (slips on a banana peel)

Autumn has definitely arrived in Northern Ireland! The fresh air suddenly feels more cool and crisp, and I’ve been staring unbelievingly at the calendar that says “October”. My first month in Belfast has already passed, and each week seems to fly by and blend into the next. While I’m still getting acclimated to the weather and other cultural elements, my new environment is starting to feel more familiar. The locals keep asking if I’m “settling in”, and I think in a lot of ways I have done just that – wiggled into my small niche in this community, and then let myself relax a little bit.
Here are some of the highlights from the advent of Autumn:

As part of my cookery/craft responsibilities at The Link, I decided to assign an Autumn/Halloween theme to the Tuesday activities in October! We started with a giant paper tree attached to the wall of the drop-in, decorated with leaves that I drew and photocopied, and the members used all their innate creativity and fabulosity to color them in!

Funny cultural misunderstanding - before hanging up the letters, didn't realize "Fall" is largely unknown as a synonym to Autumn.

Next week it was on to caramel apples (or toffee apples, as they call them here)! I had never made toffee apples before, but the online instructions seemed simple enough. They turned out really well (even if their appearances weren’t perfect)! It’s the taste that counts!

My housemates and I got to witness a little piece of Northern Irish history and culture when we watched the Ulster Covenant Parade march past our street. A century ago, people occupying several counties in the north of Ireland (a regional area known as Ulster) signed a pact, vowing that they would remain a part of the United Kingdom no matter what, using whatever means necessary to prevent being subject to Home Rule in Ireland. (Whatever means necessary – implying the use of violence to achieve their ends.) The Parade celebrates the Covenant and British citizenship, with band after band playing flutes, accordions, and drums – very loudly! Bands are a controversial institution in interface areas of Northern Ireland (places where Unionist and Nationalist neighborhoods are in close proximity) due to the intimidating nature of their drumming – but that’s a whole other story!

The new season also marked a new adventure as I began to lead an informal weekly art club at Regent Street Presbyterian. I’ve never lead anything like that before, so I was pretty apprehensive that those who came would actually want me to teach them something! Mostly it’s been a kind of open space for people of all ages and artsy interests to explore whatever tickles their fancy. Last week I did do a demonstration on basic hand and facial structure guidelines – it didn’t go too badly, and those who attended seemed to enjoy it! Phew! Thank you, God, for the chance to enjoy creativity!

Colorful Donaghadee behind me

I'll leave you with some images of a visit to the quaint sea-side town of Donaghadee! It was a beautiful day, and we could see the distant shore of Scotland very clearly as we walked along the coast and looked to the east!

~ As a side note, for those who are interested, BBC radio in Northern Ireland (called Radio Ulster) broadcasts a local church service every Sunday morning at 10:15, rotating through the denominations and towns, and next Sunday (October 14th) my church, Regent Street Presbyterian, is going to be on the radio! And I'll be part of the broadcast, doing two readings! All of Northern Ireland will hear my strange American accent in the midst of the normal accents of the ministers and other readers.
If you're interested in listening to the 45 minute broadcast, you can, thanks to the wonders of technology! You can listen to it up to 7 days after the 14th by clicking on this link: Radio Ulster broadcast of Regent Street Presbyterian.
I hope you'll tune in! It will be a rare opportunity to connect my U.S. community with my N.I. community!

"So you are no longer outsiders or aliens, but fellow-citizens with every other Christian -- you now belong to the household of God." - Ephesians 2:19 (J.B. Phillips translation)

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Pancakes, Spoons, and Hills

Highlights from my first full week of work:

 The Link Family and Community Centre

Three days a week, I get to hang out with youth for a few hours during the afternoon drop-in sessions at The Link.  Local teenagers have the chance to shoot some pool, play some video games, check their Facebook, or chat with friends (maybe while chowing down on a pile of chips (fries) from the Chippy around the corner).
To be perfectly honest, I was really nervous to start this work placement. But little by little, I've grown to know the guys in drop-in a wee bit more each day.
My favorite part of drop-in BY FAR is when I lead a "Cookery" session.  I love messing around in the kitchen, and Cookery is an excellent way to teach some basic cooking/baking skills, have positive interactions with a few of the kids at a time, and then share our creation with the rest of drop-in!  So far, we've made chocolate-chip pancakes, toasties (grilled sandwiches), and spaghetti bolognese (fancy-talk for spaghetti and meatballs)! Mmmmm! It's a fun give-and-take: they teach me about words and types of food that I've never heard of before, and I tell them about the similar American version.
Another part of my role at The Link is helping with the Young women's group that meets once a week in the evening.  These girls are a HOOT!  The first night I was hanging out with them, I taught them a classic (also slightly violent and rowdy) card game that I learned when I was their age: SPOONS!

It's a fast-paced race to avoid being the lone player left without a precious spoon.  They love it and keep requesting that we play! I'm all spooned-out by the end of the night.
We also started our Zumba sessions this week!  Tons of fun, and lots of making up your own moves when you can't follow the instructor.
Looking forward to getting to know everyone more as the weeks go on at The Link!

Regent Street Presbyterian Church

My main job at Regent Street Presbyterian so far has been learning names and trying to remember them! But I'm catching on fairly quickly and this congregation reminds me a lot of my church home in Florida.  Everyone I've met, staff and lay person alike, has been so encouraging and supportive.
I've already had the opportunity to help coordinate a candle-lighting reflection time during one of the evening praise services, meet lots of youth during Sunday morning Bible Class, and tag along on some pastoral visits.  In the future, I'll become even more involved in the Youth Fellowship team, and even lead some of the Children's Moments at the front of the church on Sundays!  I feel so blessed to be welcomed so warmly into the life of this congregation.

Climbing Cave Hill

 Nature! Exercise! Getting our fingers in some clay and grass! Yeah! Woo!

The view from the top -- awesome!


Despite the similarities in the Northern Irish and U.S. cultures, I'm regularly reminded that the life experiences of those around me has been totally different than my own.  Sometimes, while hiking a giant hill or worshiping in a church or watching Gilmore Girls on T.V., it's easy to forget about the deeply embedded divisiveness in the country I now live in. 
Many lives and perspectives are still broken from the past, and there is a generation growing up now who is inheriting the burden of their parent's conflict.  A conflict they don't fully understand yet.  And yet many young people take up their parent's "cause" as their own, even if they've never had any personal interaction or conversation with "the other side" (i.e. Catholics -- in Ireland, a term having less to do with religion and more to do with political persuasion).  I am filled with grief when I think that this is the reality kids in this country are dealing with.  Maybe all we can do is challenge the prejudices we encounter, and hope that the challenge makes at least one or two stop and think about what they're participating in.
There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.  -- Galatians 3:28